Pigeons are a common view worldwide — funny birds to feed for many, a pest for others. Here’s how to control their population without cruelty.
“It’s not pretty at all!” shouted Woody Allen while he was chasing a pigeon with an extinguisher in 1980’s Stardust Memories. “They are rat with wings! It’s probably one of those killer pigeons.” Maybe it was not a deadly killer, but many people would agree with Allen: pigeons can be a problem if their population gets out of control.
Since the beginning of history, pigeons have been with humans; their first point of reference was in 1200 BC as a messenger from the pharaoh Ramses III. Nowadays, they inhabit every continent except for freezing Antarctica. They go wherever food is available, and it seems they find a lot in human cities.
A spokesperson from wildlife charity RSPB says: “Today, pigeons congregate in increasing numbers in town centres, especially at popular tourist locations like Trafalgar Square and wherever else food is readily available. So, it may seem obvious, but the most effective measures to discouraging pigeons nesting in urban areas are to reduce access to food, which is often litter or discarded human food, and the attractiveness of nest-sites. Lethal control should always be a last resort.”
So, there is an ethical problem. How do we control the pigeon populations without killing them? Natalia Doran from Urban Squirrels has the same problem with grey squirrels, which many Londoners consider a pest. For her, “pigeons are amazing animals, who pass mirror self-recognition tests like primates”.
She explains: “We must bear in mind that we are talking about living, breathing sentient beings whose lives matter to them. They share the urban habitat with us, and we should respect the fact that this habitat doesn’t belong to us, and we do far more damage to the environment than any number of pigeons ever could.”
The truth is, for many people, pigeons are a pest. Birds are a common channel to spread viruses and diseases. But according to a paper published by Veterinary Microbiology, pigeons are not guilty of the current pandemic. Also, their faeces are very acidic, which brings problems to the conservation of sculptures and buildings. Needless to say, nobody likes when a bird shits on the shoulder.
Pigeons usually gather in flocks of 60 to 200, and sometimes they can cause real problems, for instance, in the ventilation systems of big buildings, airports or factories. The most conventional methods of containing them are shooting, poison or traps. The British Pest Control Association says that the most obvious and cost-effective way of controlling pigeons food and nestingis to “cover bins, clean up spillages and restrict access to food”.
“Most importantly, don’t feed the pigeons,” it adds. “Lethal control can be an option. [But] culling pigeons to reduce flock sizes is rarely successful, unless access to food is restricted, as population numbers soon recover. This should only ever be done as a last resort.” If killing is useless — apart from distressful — the most ethical way would be controlling birth; that is, just giving them a pill to reduce reproduction.
Ovocontrol has developed a chemical that acts as bait and can reduce bird population by 50% within the first year, and within a few seasons, the flock typically stabilises with a 90% to 95% reduction. Eric Wolf, its CEO, says: “Other than the contraceptive effect, there is no other change in the birds. They still breed, they still lay eggs, they still build nests, and they still lay [typically] two eggs. There are no changes in behaviour whatsoever.” He adds that just like human contraceptives, the effects of Ovocontrol in birds are fully reversible as soon as the birds stop taking the pill.
In the UK, there are estimated around 465,000 pairs, most of them concentrated in the south. They live with the same partner lifelong, and they are fertile all year round, usually with two bay birds per year. “The fact is that increasing mortality, via traps, shooting or poison, has no long-term effect on the population, since the prodigious birds just breed back what is missing,” explains Wolf.
Pigeons are one of the few wild animals who can share an urban environment with humans and one of the first contacts with nature many kids have. No one wants to extinguish pigeons. They have proved loyal company for ages, were part of a very useful communication network and won more medals for bravery in serving their country than any other animal in war times. So, instead of killing them, let’s help pigeons have safe sex.